Labour’s ‘scorched earth’ policy or: How they farted in the lift and ran off before anyone smelt it

The national accounts

In 363 AD the Roman emperor Julian led his troops into Persia. Instead of finding the bountiful prize he expected, according to Edward Gibbon, Julian found that “on the approach of the Romans, the rich and smiling prospect was instantly blasted. Wherever they moved…the cattle was driven away; the grass and ripe corn were consumed with fire; and, as soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted the march of Julian, he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert.”

Politically ‘scorched earth’ has usually been more prosaic. When Al Gore lost the election in 2000 disgruntled Democrat staffers went round the White House removing the letter W from computer keyboards. But as David Cameron moved into Number 10 he found Gibbon’s “smoking and naked desert”.

The catastrophic state of Britain ’s public finances under Labour was already well known. National debt doubled. Gordon Brown began running budget deficits back in 2002. The national debt is rising at over £5,000 per second. We have the largest budget deficit in the G20. By 2013 9p in every £1 paid in tax in the UK will be spent on paying the interest on this debt. Former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne was being accurate as well as crass when he left a one sentence long letter to his successor David Laws; “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left”

During the election campaign Labour told us that this fiscal incontinence was necessary to fight the “global” recession (the one Gordon Brown had told us would never come). With borrowing this year of over £160 billion, Brown warned that even cutting spending by £6 billion, less than 1% of all government spending, risked tipping us into depression.

It was always (just about) possible to take a charitable view of the Labour government’s wild spending and acknowledge their sincerity. After all, they honestly seemed to believe it was a good idea to spend £1.3 billion on ID cards, now, thankfully, scrapped by the coalition. But in the last couple of days it has begun to look as though Labour adopted a Persian approach to the public finances.

In its last four months in office the Labour government signed off 60 projects totaling over £10.5 billion of spending. A couple of striking examples were given by The Guardian

“Ed Balls, who has spoken of his struggle with stammering as a child, approved £500,000 to support a stammering centre in West Yorkshire in March. Margaret Hodge, then culture minister, approved £200,000 to renovate the Jewish Museum in London and relocate the Wiener Library, one of the world’s most extensive archives of the records relating to the Holocaust.”

Worthy causes, but can we actually afford them?

Senior civil servants seemed to think not. Faced with this wave of new spending they took the unusual step of asking for written orders from ministers. According to The Guardian

“Such ministerial orders are rare and signify an irresolvable dispute between a minister and his most senior civil servant. Whitehall sources told the Guardian there had been five this year. Public records also show nine last year and five between 2008 and 2005…That marks a big increase on the previous decade. A list of these ministerial directions published in the House of Commons shows that they were issued at a rate of two a year between 1990 and 2005…The revelation adds weight to the coalition government’s claims that ministers were profligate in the final weeks of the last government.”

Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of the First Division Association which represents senior civil servants, told the BBC “When a permanent secretary asks for their letter of direction from a minister, it is because they feel that a serious decision is being taken, which they feel is not right. It’s not a decision that is taken very often to ask for such a letter of direction, which is why it is regarded something of a nuclear option. So when it happens it tends to be a big spending decision, where the civil service believes this is not the right thing to do.”

So why was it going on? We find ourselves back in fourth century Persia. The Sunday Times reported

“One former Labour minister told The Sunday Times: “There was collusion between ministers and civil servants to get as many contracts signed off as possible before the election was called”…One former adviser to the schools department said there was a deliberate policy of “scorched earth”. “The atmosphere was ‘pull up all the railways, burn the grain stores, leave nothing for the Tories’,” he added.”

If this is the case then it explains why Labour ran away when the Liberal Democrats sounded them out about a coalition. Having farted in the fiscal elevator Labour wanted to get out and take the stairs and were mortified when Nick Clegg invited them to ride up to the next floor.

As funny as the moronic Liam Byrne may have found all this it us, the taxpayers, who will be picking up the tab for this cynical bout of economic sabotage. As Gibbon reflected, such a ‘scorched earth’ policy could “only be executed …by the rigor of an arbitrary government, which consults the public safety without submitting to their inclinations the liberty of choice.”

Thank God they are gone.

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Happy Anniversary Mr President!

Mr Brown goes to Washington

January 20th 2010 saw the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration. But he is unlikely to have felt like celebrating as, the previous day, the voters of Massachusetts had elected the Republican Scott Brown.

It’s hard to overstate just how strange a result this is. The Senate seat won by Brown had been held by Teddy Kennedy, perhaps the biggest name in Democratic party politics, for 47 years until his death last year. In 1972, the last year it had a Republican Senator, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern against Richard Nixon. It is as though a Conservative had won in Glasgow East.

Neither is this a one off. In November the Democrat governors of New Jersey and Virginia were ousted and this despite the presence of President Obama on the campaign trail. Or perhaps this was a cause? Obama’s approval rating has slipped from highs of 68% on election to barely 50% now. TEA parties (Taxed Enough Already) have sprung up across the States protesting about the $1.6 trillion deficit and town hall meetings have revealed a profound unease with the administrations plans for healthcare. Perhaps Americans voting for change in 2008 have come to realize that a man who was the product of the political machine of the most corrupt city in the country was, perhaps, not the person to achieve it.

This remarkable turn of events has come about because the change promised so repetitiously by Obama and his followers has turned out not to amount to very much. President Obama is a solid believer in big, activist government. But so was George W Bush.

President Obama has hemorrhaged more political capital on his health reforms than on any other issue. His aims have been to correct what he sees as the failure of the market in health insurance to cover all Americans and to make healthcare cheaper. Quite what form his eventual bill will take remains a mystery, the House of Representatives and Senate have a bill each with only the Senate’s bill actually passed. Besides, the election of Scott Brown now gives the Republicans the 41 Senate seats they need to filibuster any bill that shows up there. What was clear though, at every stage, was that ‘Obamacare’, in whatever form, amounted to a massive expansion of the role of the Federal government.

But this does not represent any kind of change from the administration of George W Bush who said “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move”. Indeed, the Bush administration oversaw the largest increase in spending since Lyndon Johnson gave the US ‘The Great Society’. Between 2001 and 2007 education spending rose 18% annually as a result of Bush’s cherished No Child Left Behind Act. Agricultural spending was doubled from its 1990s levels by the 2002 Farm Act. Spending on Medicare doubled during the Bush years reaching $431.5 billion in 2007. According to academics at George Mason University, in his eight years in office “President Clinton increased the federal budget by 11 percent. In eight years, President Bush increased it by a whopping 104 percent.”

After the disastrous Bush presidency which left Americans less safe and less prosperous than they had been before, change was necessary. But the change from Bush’s big government to Obama’s big government is no change at all. 235 years ago Massachusetts was the birthplace of a revolution against overbearing government and perhaps the election of Scott Brown signals a new one. It is long overdue.

Written for the UCL Conservative magazine, February 2010